Ed Orgeron is no longer just a good story, a boisterous personality wining and dining his team with chicken, waffles and smiles. We’re past that.
He's now a semifinalist for the Maxwell Football Club Collegiate Coach of the Year Award, the first interim coach to ever be recognized this deep in the process.
Per the Maxwell Football Club, Ed Orgeron is the first interim HC to be named a semifinalist for the Maxwell COY award.— Paul Myerberg (@PaulMyerberg) November 20, 2013
The fun, expectation-less honeymoon phase has given way for success—both on and off the field. And with that, USC athletic director Pat Haden suddenly has a difficult decision to make with sand tumbling down the hourglass. Quite frankly, it’s only difficult if he makes it so.
Less than 48 hours after Orgeron led the USC marching band in song following a victory over Stanford—Tommy Trojan’s sword in hand and hopefully no unfortunate band member within reach—USC picked up the commitment of a 4-star lineman.
Landing a verbal commitment in November shouldn’t expedite a full-time coaching contract to his desk, but there’s significance here beyond an eventual depth at offensive line. Viane Talamaivao, a 4-star guard according to 247Sports, was previously committed to Alabama before his change of heart. The Corona, Calif., native attended the USC-Stanford game, and he pledged his verbal shortly thereafter.
In the last six weeks, Orgeron has largely displayed the anatomy of the ideal USC coach: winning (of course), recruiting and owning Southern California with a little bit of flare. Not too much flare, but just enough.
This 48-hour window is not the reason USC should hire Orgeron. It’s part of the reason, another plus in a small sample size that’s turning the pros versus cons into a lopsided affair.
Under Orgeron, the team is 5-1 and entering the home stretch playing its best football of the year. Excluding a cross-country trip to South Bend, the performance has been night and day since he took over. There is excitement in the program that has been absent really since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.
The team is ripe with young talent and it is developing right before our eyes. This talent—and the full roster for that matter—has completely bought into what Orgeron is selling, something that has become quite clear as the season has progressed.
Cody Kessler on Ed Orgeron: "We would run through a wall for that man." #USC— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) November 17, 2013
Yet behind the curtain, USC is preparing as if it will still make a change following the season. Haden celebrated the USC win in style, leaving his feet in celebration, but he’s also operating with the bigger picture in mind—as he should.
Broncos assistant Jack Del Rio has interviewed for the job, as first reported by Jay Glazer of Fox Sports.
It was also reported by ESPN’s Travis Haney last week that USC is prepared to pay its next head coach up to $6 million a year if necessary. And no, such salary requirements wouldn’t be necessary if the interim tag was removed.
While the shuffling behind the scenes is expected, Orgeron has embraced the role of underdog, a role that’s easy to get behind. Haden has become well aware of this groundswell, as his email is beginning to suffer because of it.
Pat Haden just now on Trojans Live: "I counted. I had 136 pro Coach O emails today. And that didn't count tweets."— Pete Roussel (@coachingsearch) November 20, 2013
Of course, Orgeron is pitching to stay on, but his campaigning isn’t exactly that of your local government official leading up to an election. He’s letting his performance and that of his team do the talking while expressing his desire to stay when asked.
"I want to be the head coach at USC," Orgeron said courtesy of ESPN.com. "I love being a head coach. I think that it's something I'm able to do, and do well. And I want to be the head coach at USC when I get the chance. I think I can perform on a very high basis to do what the Trojan family wants me to do."
There will be bigger names and salaries that can be had, potentially the likes of Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Boise State’s Chris Petersen, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin and others. These are just a handful of names that have been brought up in the “throw things against the wall” phase.
This process is only in its infancy, but this will attract interest from plenty of successful, employed coaches.
The coaches that will garner looks from Haden will almost certainly be more “qualified” than Orgeron, having extensive success in other places or showcasing potential that could trounce “the guy that bombed out at Ole Miss.”
What Orgeron had done, however, shouldn’t just be taken for granted. And the past is just that.
Finding the perfect fit for a program is not something that can be bought. It’s easy to bury this initiative in salary and bonuses, but chemistry in the community and with the players often is overlooked for more resume-boosting accomplishments.
Hiring a head coach—regardless of track record and past accolades—is a leap of faith. It is a combination of comfort, knowledge, setting, talent and the ability to motivate current and future players.
Orgeron has thrived in his brief opportunity, exhibiting the unidentifiable and difficult-to-obtain “it” factor. Whether he can sustain it over the long haul is the question, but there are reasons to believe he can be much more than quick-fix elixir. He’s shown that in the little time he’s had.
This isn’t about beating UCLA in the final game of the season—although don’t think this won’t loom large in the decision. It's not about one-half of a season and the short-term buzz that has stretched well beyond the West Coast. It’s also not about past failures or how other interim coaches have done when handed the keys to the car. And it's not about landing the big name, the headline-grabbing hire that guarantees nothing but short-term press.
This is about fit, and at this point it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue that anyone fits this program better than the sword-wielding coach making the most of his opportunity.
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Auburn's turnaround from a 3-9 record in 2012 to 10-1, the No. 6 spot in the BCS standings and an Iron Bowl showdown with Alabama for the SEC West title in 2013 is nothing short of remarkable.
A team that was shut out by a combined score of 87-0 in its final two SEC games last season is on the periphery of the national title race and all of the sudden relevant in the SEC again.
What's the reason for the remarkable one-year turnaround?
First-year head coach Gus Malzahn.
When athletic director Jay Jacobs hired Malzahn after a one-year stint as Arkansas State's head coach, he knew Malzahn would turn things around. But the immediate success—with Auburn in the mix for the SEC Championship Game and BCS National Championship Game in Year 1—was a shock even to him.
"I knew we would get better, and I knew we would again, have fun playing the game, but I don't know if anybody thought we'd improve this much this quickly," Jacobs said.
So how did Malzahn turn things around so quickly?
His mantra from Day 1 has been that it's "A New Day" in Auburn, and his most important sales job as the new coach on the block was selling that mantra to his team.
It bought in.
"That was the biggest thing they had to accomplish, and that was the thing that Gus focused on from the very beginning," Jacobs said. "It all starts with trust and confidence, and that's why it was so important and Gus was so relentless in making sure he had the right staff, the right nine assistant coaches. Guys who are teachers, guys who are trustworthy and guys who are made of character."
Headlining the success in Malzahn's first year as the head coach on the Plains has been the remarkable turnaround of the offense, which ranks second in the SEC in yards per game at 499.9 after amassing just 305.0 yards per game in 2012.
The coaching staff having one singular focus was big for Malzahn's offense, and the cohesive offensive strategy has paid immediate dividends for the Tigers.
"There's a consolidation of strategy," said Jay G. Tate, publisher of AuburnSports.com. "I really like [former offensive coordinator] Scot Loeffler, but I didn't feel like he had a good grasp of what he wanted to do last year. I know he knows how to run a good offense, but he was stuck between what he wanted to do and what he had, and I never really felt there was a real overall concept of what was trying to be accomplished."
Of course, junior college transfer Nick Marshall's emergence as a legitimate dual-threat quarterback accelerated the transition process.
Marshall leads SEC quarterbacks with 82.30 rushing yards per game, has tossed nine touchdown passes and is averaging 153.0 yards per game through the air. He was only on campus for five weeks before taking his first snap with the Tigers, and Malzahn has been impressed with his evolution within the system.
"It's really all of the above," Malzahn said. "Just being comfortable running the offense with the communication, his reads and his progressions and really, his game management."
But it wasn't just a change in the on-the-field coaching staff that turned around Auburn's fortunes, it was a change in the strength and conditioning program that has really helped the Tigers buckle down in the red zone.
Ryan Russell, the team's strength and conditioning coach, came to Auburn from Arkansas State, and has played a major role in the turnaround. The Tigers rank third in the conference in red-zone touchdown percentage (47.37 percent), and second in red-zone scoring percentage (73.68 percent).
"Maybe one of the most important things that Gus did was bring Ryan Russell in here," Jacobs said. "Your team is really built January through August, and the way these guys are conditioned and the condition that coach Russell has got them in, I'd say that's an easy area [of the turnaround] to overlook. But when you have a problem in that area, that's the first thing that pops out."
The play of Auburn's defensive line has been a big reason the Tigers have been successful this season. Defensive end Dee Ford is second in the conference in sacks with eight and tackles for loss with 11.5—all of which have come in the last eight games.
A talent injection this offseason along the defensive line with defensive tackle Montravius Adams and defensive ends Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel has allowed the staff to rotate throughout the game, keeping players fresh for a full four quarters.
"National signing day was a key day for us," Jacobs said. "We signed some key guys who are already now playing like Lawson, Adams and Daniel. We thought the D-line would be the deepest position on the team, but we've had some injuries and some of those freshmen had to come in and help out."
In one short year, Malzahn has completely reversed the fortunes of a program that was in turmoil just 12 months ago. A team that was battered, beaten, demoralized and lost has found its way all the way back into legitimate title consideration.
"At 10-1," Jacobs said, "it's safe to say that Auburn football is back."
Back in the Top 10, back in the national conversation and—most importantly—back into relevancy.
It was going to happen at some point, but nobody expected it to come this quickly.
*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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